Exercise and I have never had what you would call a “healthy relationship.”
Actually, it could’ve been characterized as abusive at times.
I remember struggling through fourth grade “fitness tests” in gym class; where each student took their turn attempting pull-ups, or crunches, or touching their toes… In front of the rest of the class. Talk about humiliation! When my tiny body failed to perform at the same level as some of my classmates, I was drenched in shame.
Later on, when I was a teenager and body image was a thing, suddenly every girl was supposed to have a flat stomach, be a size 0, and somehow be comfortable wearing low-rise jeans (I don’t miss you, early 2000s fashion).
This is around the time that the harmful messages started flooding in: “If you want to stay that skinny, you’ll have to start working out.” “You’re starting to get a flat tire stomach, you should go to the gym with me.” “You better watch how many cookies you eat.” It became crystal clear to me that my number one goal should be staying thin, and that controlling my eating and exercising was the way to do that.
Throughout high school, and for the first two years of college, I was on the Drumline in the marching band. Carrying around a 20 pound drum for 10+ hours a week was a hell of a workout! But I wasn’t doing it for the workout; I was doing it because I loved making music, being creative, and belonging to a community. I just happened to get some killer muscle definition as a result.
Before my third year in college, I decided not to continue marching band in order to make time for pursuing a degree in Photography. My mental and physical health suffered, and it took years for me to piece together why these things fell apart.
When I started seeing my first therapist, she asked if I was exercising regularly. As I said before, my early introduction to conventional exercise was undesirable, and by this time, running and crunches equalled certain death in the form of a shame spiral. She told me about the benefits of exercise on mental health, and it made sense, so I tried a little harder.
I decided to go to the gym every day for a half hour, armed with this newfound wisdom that this would cure my depression. As soon as I entered the gym, I’d start comparing myself to others. During my elliptical workout, as I stared at the other gym patrons, I’d compare myself to them. Sometimes, I’d take a friend to run with me - they were usually faster - causing my internal dialogue to replay the “I Suck” track over and over again. Literally the only time I felt good was when I got to finally leave the gym.
Inevitably, I quit this routine after no more than two weeks… I mean, why would I want to continue something that made me feel so bad about myself?
I continued therapy, the depression lifted, and life continued. But my relationship with exercise stayed the same - characterized by hate, self-loathing, suffering, and shame.
Recently, after deciding to venture out on my own and be an entrepreneur, I was approached with an opportunity to be a fitness coach. I scoffed at the idea at first, given my terrible relationship with exercise and eating. However, by this time, I had covered a lot of ground in terms of understanding why my relationship with exercise was so terrible (thanks, Feminism!), and the idea of working with a company called Beachbody actually made me mad. I saw the name as a reinforcer of all the negative messages I received at an early age… I thought, “this is everything that’s wrong with the fitness world! We don’t need to be fixed! Why can’t I just work out because it helps my brain function better?… Without all the bullshit?”
And then… I realized that this anger was passion. I knew why my formative experience with exercise was so poor, and the contributing factors were so clear. And so, I realized that by coaching people through exercise programs, I would be putting myself in a position to actually affect change. This passion could actually be harnessed and I could not only rewrite those harmful messages for myself, but help others do the same.
It’s a daily challenge to rewrite those shame-filled, critical thoughts into loving, compassionate ones, but by committing myself to this coaching practice, I’m doing it.
I’m doing it! This is cause for major celebration, people!
It’s working because I’m exercising to take care of myself, instead of to punish myself. I’m exercising because I love my body and I want to see what it can do. I’m nourishing my body with whole, healthy foods because I love the way it feels when I do.
It’s also working because I’m journeying in community; the folks in my self care groups are working with their own negative self-talk around fitness, but we’re doing it together - we’ve got each others’ backs. I think that’s a really important component for me, and for anyone who struggles with these heavy issues.
Doing the exploratory inner work necessary to heal my relationship with exercise and my body is challenging, but dedicating myself to my self care in this way, in community, makes it possible.
So, I have a confession to make… I’m not an exercise hater anymore. I actually look forward to it every day, because it makes me feel good, strong, empowered, and free. I’m an exercise lover.